Conversation with a monk

In Seoul for a few days. Was walking pretty aimlessly through its Chongno area – one of its main downtown streets (well, there are lots of downtowns here). Went to a music store in the basement of the YBM building. I noticed a monk there, browsing CDs – you wouldn’t expect to see a monk in a music store, let alone a Caucasian one. I ended up buying a bunch of VCDs, the 3 colors trilogy, a few Jet Li movies, and a Buena Vista Social Club discount box set.
I left the store and walked through the nearby Insadong area, where there’s lots of traditional Korean shops and restaurants – it’s one of my favorite areas, even though I know it’s done up for tourists to a large degree, and most of the Koreans I know would hardly come here.
I walked into a back alley, and took some video of a junkyard, came back to the main street where I came across the monk again. We nodded to each other, and he asked, ‘Fancy a cup of tea?’
So, lately, I’d been thinking I should start recording my thoughts to an MD recorder and given my history of interviewing musicians, I was inspired to ask if he minded if I recorded our conversation. I’ve forgotten his name.
Here is part of the transcription:

Monk: This is a holiday. Tomorrow we have to go back. So I just came home to relax. We just had 7 days holiday. So it’s short and fast. Basically, you can go to any temple that you like, and they’ll put you up for some time. It’s usually for two or three days. It’s part of the culture that you move on during the travel period. They sometimes give you money for your next bus ticket.
Me: The bus is really cheap here.
Monk: Yeah, I was really shocked. It’s so cheap… When we finish our retreats, we get some money from the temple to get clothes and medicine and basic necessities of life. And you need to live on that money while you travel around for the next three weeks. You can get up to a million won. So, you get this ridiculous wad of money that you don’t know what to do with. You feel like some kind of mugger or big gambler.
(We talk about how things are cheaper in Korea than where we’ve come from. But some prices are out-of-wack, some things expensive, some things cheap. I showed him the VCDs I bought, and he recognized certain things, and knew for instance that Ry Cooder produced some of the Buena Vista Social Club songs.)
Monk: I used to — before I became a monk — buy a lot of music and listen to it. I had no intention of buying anything when I went in there today, so I was kind of just walking around, looking at my old life in a way. We don’t get any news or anything in the temple, so seeing what new music was doing, not that you can really get a feel from that — seeing the old artists that I used to like, and seeing what they’re doing now.
(I talk about I also used to be really into music, but after moving to Japan, other things came up in my life, and little by little I’d been forgetting a lot of the music trivia I knew. We realize that we’re both around 25 years old.)
Me: You can date-stamp when foreigners came here by what they’re wearing.
Monk: So, I guess I’ve got this 1999 London smell about me. Sometimes, I hear a song on the radio, which was out in London at the time, before I left to become a monk, so I feel very nostalgic. A monk’s life is about transformation, not really transforming our minds, but transforming our bad habits to good habits. That might sound crazy, but it’s not. It’s just about becoming a decent person, changing your negative mind into a positive mind.
Me: I can understand that on a basic level, thinking about smoking, which I occasionaly do. There are some positive effects from it, but still it has a negative side. I feel I can redirect that energy to get the positive effects in other ways.
Monk: Well, this is what monastic life is. It’s redirecting the habits and the energy that remains from the old habits, you redirect it into new habits, and a new way of looking at the world, and a new way of interacting with the world, no longer just living for yourself, but also living for the people around you. So, there are very strong habit-changing exercises that we do — the first one is meditation. We do these exercises everyday, to change the way that we are, or to be able to watch the way that we are, and be able to redirect the negative energy. I guess that’s a better way to put it, especially since I’m on tape now — I should try to put things as eloquently as I can.
Me: I have that problem, too, talking into the tape. But there’s something so permanent about writing on paper. I want to get the ideas out in another way, to loosen things up.
Monk: Have you ever heard of a Japanese poet called Basho? He was a haiku poet. He practiced zen. So, he said that a poet, someone who writes, someone who is creative, he said that the first thing that they have to have is singleness of mind, single pointedness of mind. They have to become one with nature. If you don’t have this one-ness with nature — from this one-ness, you get the spontaneity of the mind — then you can never really put your ideas down on paper, whatever you record will always be in the past. but if you have this oneness, this spontaneity of mind, this oneness with nature, then whatever you record will be timeless, spaceless … This oneness of nature is understanding the foundations of nature, isn’t it? Or rather than understanding, it’s apprehending, this intuitive knowing, like this table, it’s knowing that ‘table’ is just a ‘label,’ and it’s more than just a table, it’s a collection of atoms and molecules, which are constantly moving. Even though we see this thing as solid, it is constantly in flux. Right? We call this solid, but it’s actually a liquid, even though we don’t know that. But, when you explore the nature of your mind, the nature of reality, and the nature of life, you see that all these things that are around us are in a constant of flux, in a constant state of change. This thing is created from conditions. Firstly, you have the wood, which was created by the sun, the moon, the wind, the water, all these kind of things, and then you have the carpenter who made this table, so the table came into being, and now, as you can see by the graffiti on the table, it’s in a state of decline, decay. And if we put it on a fire, then it will be completely burnt. I think if we bear in mind, that the whole of our lives, that our bodies are doing exactly the same thing as this building. Even though we are just 25 or 26 years old, the body is just decaying, even though it’s growing, there’s cells which are constantly reproducing, dividing and reproducing. It’s always changing. But, basically, are body is always getting older, and decaying, and heading towards our deaths. So, the body is doing that, and the mind is also changing according to the condition, and to the habits, and to the environment. But there is something within all this, which maybe doesn’t change.
Me: What would that be?
Monk: Well, we can’t put a name on that, and we can’t actually say that it’s a definite thing. We call it the essence of the mind, but you can’t really say that the essence of the mind is a real thing, because if you look, we’re just a series of conditions, a series of relationships. It was the sperm and the ovum originally, and then there’s this magical thing, called mind, this magical thing which is able to talk, which is able to perceive, to feel hungry, or to feel tired or sleepy, to feel all these things. But, we don’t know what this thing is. So, this is what the oneness with nature is about, finding out what this thing is, and whether it is a thing, or whether it is not a thing, or whether it is something that is permanent, or not permanent, or something which arises and falls away, like everything else in nature.
Me: I haven’t studied Buddhism. But I’ve given some thought to these things or heard about this. I do find it somewhat freeing to realize that in the scale of it all – to be a grain of sand is rather than debilitating me or killing my desire to do something, it is freeing and enabling. I think as an artist to do something, the artist needs to simultaneously make their ego huge and small. Some people place far too much importance on what they’re doing and it chokes them…
Monk: Chokes the thing itself, because it’s the thing of what I’m doing, you’ve got that ‘i’ there, but if you have this direct relationship with nature, then you see that you’re just a condition, so you just have the thing which is being done. You just have the thing which is going on at that moment, and you have nothing else going on. You’ve got no ‘I’. If I’m writing, you’ve just got the paper and the pen, and the contact of the paper and the pen, and the pen with the hand, and that’s what you’ve got …